Friday, June 10, 2011


Around 32 AD, just a year or two after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul the Pharisee witnessed and approved of the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:55-60; 8:1-3; 22:20), for which the authority was granted from Rome to the Sanhedrin, since it was a crime of religious and not civic nature. Then Paul began to destroy the church by pursuing and imprisoning as many Christians as he could find in and around Jerusalem. He asked for and received permission from the High Priest, Caiaphas, to continue his search for Jerusalem Christians who had sought refuge in Damascus, in order to put them on trial back in Jerusalem. On the way to find followers of the Way, Paul met the Way, Jesus Christ.

Before we look at Paul’s conversion, let’s look at what Paul might have been thinking about Christianity, and then we’ll consider what role the city of Damascus might have played in being the first outreach for Paul’s persecution efforts. Several Scripture passages, both from Luke’s biographical information and Paul’s autobiographical mention, give us insight as to his mentality at this stage. In Acts 9:1, Luke records that “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” before he asked to track down refuges in Damascus. In the time between Stephen’s stoning and his conversion, perhaps a year to 18 months, Paul went from being a mere witness of persecution against Christians to leading the way in the seek and destroy mission that the Pharisees must have gone on. And from what I’ve learned of Pharasaism, this reaction is a little surprising. The Pharisees, vying for the straight and narrow middle of the road between the Sadducees and Essenes, had bared the brunt of minority persecution, all the while siding with the common folk, throughout their history. At this point in history, perhaps seeing that they finally garnered an equal power share with their archrival Sadducees, maybe they felt – like the time they sought foreign assistance against Jannaeus – this was the only way to keep power. Acts 6:14 reveals that the Pharisees thought Jesus was trying to change the customs Moses handed down to the Jews, which must have served as the primary motive for Paul, though many of the Pharisees may have been more concerned about their political power. Generally speaking, it appears that Jewish people still respected Christian Jews (Acts 22:12), so the Pharisee reaction was undoubtedly extreme.

1 Corinthians 15:9 and Galatians 1:13 make it clear that Paul saw himself as a persecutor of the church who tried to destroy it. Considering his efforts “zeal” (Philippians 3:6), Paul said in Acts 26:11, “Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.” Theologically speaking, Jesus’ status, career, and teaching didn’t conform to what Paul or the other Pharisees expected (though they should have – Acts 26:22-23) from the Messiah, but the absolute primary thing that offended them all, the conclusive argument against Jesus as Messiah, was the crucifixion, which ironically, they brought about themselves. A “crucified Messiah” was a contradiction of terms, in their opinion. Isaiah 11:2 says, “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him.” The Messiah could not be crucified. Of course, since we have 2000 years of assistance understanding how the Messiah not only could be crucified, but had to be crucified, we don’t easily sympathize with Jewish scholars who miss the truth. Deuteronomy 21:23b says, “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” But the first part of the verse is crucial, and may have been crucial in Paul’s learning as a new believer, “You must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day.” Paul would learn this and come to explain it well, later saying, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). And again in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’”

So Paul, zealous for God’s law and bringing Judean Christians to justice, headed for Damascus. Damascus is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Jewish tradition even says that Abraham ruled there for a time (Genesis 14:15; 15:2). It was first an Amorite town then ruled by Arameans throughout Israel’s monarchy (1200-750 BC). It changed hands during the Empirical reigns of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece. As the Greek Empire fell and the Roman Empire rose, the Ptolemies claimed the city, but the Seleucids controlled and Hellenized it. Rome took it in 66 BC, and it became one of the ten cities of the Decapolis. Damascus probably maintained a sizeable Jewish population from the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles onward; Josephus reports 10-18,000 Jews were massacred in Damascus in 66 AD. Interestingly, the city had and still has some eschatological significance for both Jews and Muslims, but not so for Christians. And recent archaeological discoveries reveal that the Essenes of Qumran may have started off, or sought refuge at some point, in Damascus (They cited Amos 5:27 as reason to go there, and even beyond to Qumran). With all of this said, and though speculation surrounds their origin, Damascus undoubtedly had a group of Christian Jews by this time, for the Jerusalem Christian Jews headed there for refuge from Paul.

One scholar suggested that Jesus’ family went there after his resurrection and founded a church, expecting Him to return there in glory. Many others deny this option and instead point to the likelihood that the Damascus Christians were Galilean Jews rather than Judean Jews, for both the proximity of the Decapolis to Galilee and the fact that Jesus had more Galilean followers during His ministry. One other speculation peaks interest: that the Essenes and/or their descendants founded the Damascus Church. There is record of the Essenes in Damascus (either at their beginning or in seeking refuge sometime later), and they were certainly looking for the Son of David to be Messiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls make it clear that they wrote often of both the inherent righteousness of God and the righteousness He gives to His people (Paul would later say, “He is both just and the One who justifies”). Additionally, they wrote, just as Paul often did, about the flesh and spirit being in strict opposition. Could the Essenes have had right theology all along? I’m not saying they were right to run off to isolation at Qumran, but they obviously maintained some contact with the world at large. There were even Essenes, at times, represented in the Sanhedrin, for example. An interesting question arises: How much, if any, did the Essenes influence Paul and/or the disciples of Jesus in Damascus, who then later may have influenced the newly converted Paul? Galatians 1:12 reveals that Paul learned directly from Christ. Does any link, then, to the Essenes make them right?

Believe it or not, there are self-proclaimed Essene Christians out there today. And they can get pretty crazy with some of the links they make. Some modern-day Essene Christians claim that their descendants and theology go back to Enoch, who walked with God and then was not, because God took him. They claim Moses was an Essene, in his theology, though the group wasn’t official named until around 175 BC at the earliest and 140 BC at the latest. There are experts out there that claim Mary and Joseph and John the Baptist were Essenes, and that Jesus’ baptism by John confirmed Jesus as a fellow Essene (all of which explains why both of them were so harsh with the Pharisees, that sect trying to waffle between their viewpoints and those of the far leftist Sadducees). Hints of their theology are heard from Jesus’ mouth, especially when He speaks of His body as the Temple and demands a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. All those who knew the baptism of John were, by their repentant lifestyles, preparing the way for the Lord, something the Essenes were eager to do from the beginning of their movement. The Essenes claimed, and still claim today, phrases like John “the Baptist,” followers of “the Way,” and even Jesus as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The Acts 4 lifestyle among the growing group of Christians was very much according to the Essene manual of discipline (healing, hospitality, sharing, and service). They were radical in this regard, and Jesus’ teaching and healing activity was certainly radical to the audience of the day, and many, though still a minority, think there has to be a connection. Even Paul was seen by some to have adopted the Essene mentality, seeing his ministry as “priestly duty” (Romans 15:16).

But I do not want you to think that I, having studied this stuff for a while, am going to leave Southeast and track down the nearest Essene Christian community; nor do I want you to think that I’m trying to get you to do that either. There are some bizarre doctrines out there among Essene so-called Christians that are extremely eastern and new age in slant. They tie Enoch’s rapture to reincarnation and the concept of Hindu or Buddhist nirvana. Some of them suggest that Jesus had a secret Essene society and left John “the evangelist” in charge of keeping it going. They go so far as to say – and this is where we tie it all back into Paul – that Paul corrupted the ideal Essene teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus, which therefore makes all of the New Testament, with the exception of John’s writings – because he was secretly an Essene Christian – unreliable. One author concludes on this: “The similarity between the Essenes and Jesus and His community are immediately evident, the close community life, the sharing of a common purse, baptism, the healing ministry with power through the hands, the importance given to common meals, and the urgent expectation of the kingdom of God.” But the differences are scary, and maybe that’s why God gave us Paul.

Acts 9 gives the account of Paul’s journey toward Damascus, where he experienced a dramatic conversion. Literally blinded on the way, he had a brief interaction (hearing and seeing) with the resurrected Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8; Acts 9:3-4,17; 22:6-7,14; 26:4-29). Addressing him as Saul (fellow Jew), Jesus asked why he was persecuting Him, and Paul asked in reply, “Who are You, Lord?” And Jesus answered with His name and authorized him to get up and go into Damascus. Paul was escorted into Damascus where he remained blind for three days. He neither ate nor drank during this time, and the Lord only knows what was going through his mind. One thing is for sure; Paul had experienced the prime example in all of Scripture of “monergistic regeneration;” faith is a Divine revelation. We all experience it, but sometimes it’s hard to tell; there’s no doubt with Paul. The risen Christ stopped him in his tracks, instantaneously displacing the law and making Himself the center of Paul’s life, thought, and passion. Paul was not taught the gospel; he received it by revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:12). He had been imprisoned anew (Philippians 3:12; Ephesians 4:1), and he, as in the conversion of C.S. Lewis with his fingernails scraping the concrete as he was dragged to the Lord, would no longer “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). As with the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 6:1-9; Ezekiel 1:4-3:11; Jeremiah 1:5), his calling and commission were simultaneous to his conversion.

Ananias, a follower of Jesus, despite some initial reluctance to the vision from God, approached Paul with a welcoming and healing hand. It’s a picture of grace. Acts 9:18-19 records the scene: “Something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” He stayed with the awestruck and welcoming disciples, and he preached in the Damascus synagogues that Jesus is Son of God. People were astonished, and Paul grew in power as he proved to the Jews from the Scriptures (he instantly knew to be true what was impossible before his conversion; Luke 24:45) that Jesus is the Christ. Paul’s conversion gave him an instant new perspective on his past learning and training, especially on matters of law and grace. This new perspective took time to develop, perhaps in Arabia and over his lifetime (Philippians 3:8), but he began at once to expound on it (Acts 9:20). This, of course, serves as a good lesson for us!

Some scholars suggest that, in his early Christian learning, Paul must have recalled a Jewish chronological scheme, recorded in the Mishnah shortly before Paul’s education, claiming a 2000-year period of chaos (roughly creation to Moses), a 2000-year period of law (roughly Moses to Messiah), and a 2000-year period of the Messianic age (Messiah to end), all culminating in an eternity of Sabbath rest. Did Paul know of that scheme? Did he come to believe it? Why don’t other Jews believe it? All of this is impossible to answer definitively. Paul never describes his conversion vision, other than repeatedly hinting at the “Radiant Light” metaphor (Acts 9:3; 22:11; 2 Corinthians 3:7-16; 4:4-6). There is reason to believe that he saw the exalted Christ in His spiritual body, as he emphasizes the spiritual body throughout his writing (1 Corinthians 6:17; 15:44-49; Philippians 3:21). Whatever the case may be, commentators agree that, other than the Christ-event explained in the gospels, there is no bigger event in Christian history than the conversion of Saul of Tarsus to Paul, missionary to the Gentiles.

Now there is often general curiosity regarding Paul’s trip to Arabia, mentioned only in Galatians 1:17 and not at all in Luke’s account. Did he go there before or after preaching in Damascus? Maybe he preached a little, went to Arabia, and came back and preached a little more (combining an understanding of Acts 9 and Galatians 1). And why did he go? The common answer is that he went after being lowered in the basket to escape death threats in Damascus, and that his purpose was to retreat, reflect, study, and learn from the risen Jesus at Mount Sinai / Mount Horeb, where both Moses and Elijah went to meet with God. Some scholars, however, suggest that Paul went to Arabia before preaching in Damascus (Galatians 1:17) for the purpose of starting on his calling to preach the gospel to Gentiles. This minority opinion infers from 2 Corinthians 11:32 that King Aretas was the one responsible for conspiring with the Jews to have Paul killed in Damascus at some point over the three years following his conversion (Galatians 1:18). King Aretas ruled the neighboring Gentile kingdom of Nabataea, and there’s no reason he would have worked for that unless Paul had stirred up trouble while in Arabia.

Whenever the trip to Arabia, or however long it lasted, or whatever the purpose for it was, we know that Paul returned to Damascus after the trip (Galatians 1:17). Three years after leaving Jerusalem on the warpath to Damascus to snuff out any Christian flames he could find, Saul of Tarsus, the Jewish Pharisee from the tribe of Benjamin who had learned from Gamaliel and been so zealous for the law of God, made his way back to Jerusalem as an Apostle of Jesus Christ, who cared not about his pedigree or education any longer, but longed only to know Christ and Him crucified and to proclaim Him to the Gentiles of all people! Oh the grace of God through the power of His Holy Spirit!

As we know, many Jews were angry about Paul’s conversion, and many Jewish Christians were skeptical about it and therefore fearful of him. Jerusalem must have known about Paul’s conversion before he returned, for three years had passed. And Damascus Christians may have welcomed Paul, but he wasn’t out to get them. Maybe, the Jerusalem Christians could have thought, he was trying to infiltrate their membership to destroy them from within. Barnabas (or Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus (Acts 4:36)), whose apostle-given name meant “son of encouragement,” served as mediator between Paul and the Jerusalem Christian leaders (Peter and James); and Paul only visited Jerusalem for a short time. Perhaps there were some critics of Paul and his ministry who made him out to be a liar of the specifics of his Jerusalem visit, which caused him to swear that his story was true in Galatians 1:20. He stayed with Peter for 15 days and, of the Lord’s apostles, saw only James besides him (Acts 9:26-30; Galatians 1:17-19). What was accomplished during these two weeks?

Speculation here is required, but it makes sense to piece together what Paul may have done. Peter and James, both of whom had seen the risen Lord Jesus in one-on-one encounters and were listed as being the only ones besides Paul to have had such a meeting (1 Corinthians 15:5-7), were the leaders of the Jerusalem Christians. Peter was distinguished as an original disciple of the risen Lord, and James was Jesus’ brother. Peter was to be Paul’s primary informant on the historical Jesus and His earthly ministry, about which Paul likely knew very little. Peter led the Church at Mary’s (the mother of John Mark) house, one of at least two groups of Jerusalem Christians mentioned in Acts 12:12. James was Paul’s secondary informant on the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, and is said to have led the other group of Jerusalem Christians (Acts 12:17), which may have consisted of Jesus’ family. Paul went, no doubt, to learn firsthand what he could not have learned elsewhere, as well as to built a bond of fellowship with the Jerusalem Church.

F.F. Bruce, my primary source for much of this material, claims that Paul learned from Peter and James what was called “the tradition.” It certainly consisted of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1-11, especially v3,11) and may have also included early songs and creeds that the first Christians repeated together from 30-36 AD, from which Paul seems to often quote in many of his epistles (Philippians 2 for example). Paul would have wanted to be in complete agreement on the matters of important doctrine as he strived to fulfill his calling in excellence. If we break down 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, we catch a glimpse of the core truths of Christianity, the things of first importance: that Jesus is the Messiah, the prophesied Christ, that He really died, that His death constituted a blood atonement for our sins, that He was buried (actually entombed; the lack of mention of an empty tomb shows that an empty tomb alone is not evidence for resurrection), that He was raised from the dead (being seen alive was the evidence of resurrection), and that all of this happened in accordance with the Old Testament Scriptures. These truths are found throughout the New Testament, in every writer’s words, and Paul treated this information as foundational.

So in one sense, Paul received the gospel by revelation from Christ alone (Galatians 1:12), and in another sense, Paul likely received the gospel from Peter and James during his visit to Jerusalem. The first sense refers to the quickening power of the Holy Spirit, monergistic regeneration, which no personal testimony would have given to Paul, especially not that of Peter or James. And the second sense refers to the testimony of believers, which is invaluable, especially to baby Christians, for the sake of unifying the Body of Christ as a whole and for edifying and encouraging each individual member thereof.

Before Paul leaves Jerusalem, there’s one more thing we need to notice. In addition to meeting with Peter and James, Paul “moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him” (Acts 9:28-29). Most commentators say that the events of Acts 22:17-21 occurred during this brief visit to Jerusalem. There we read Paul’s own testimony of the timeline: “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ He said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.’ ‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in You. And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” So Paul must have wanted to witness to his former companions, and rightly so, but Jesus reminded him of his calling to go to the Gentiles. Jesus knew they wouldn’t listen to Paul but would try to kill him. Can you imagine how Paul, the new believer, excited about his relationship with Jesus, free from the law and praising God for His amazing grace, would have felt at this hostile rejection? He was escorted from Jerusalem to Caesarea and, from there, home to Tarsus (Galatians 1:21; Acts 9:30), where he remained for 4 years, from the summer of 36 AD to the summer of 40 AD. And Acts 9:31 says, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.” Maybe Peter and James were glad to see Paul go!

Paul headed home, well acquainted by revelation to the exalted Christ and somewhat better acquainted by the testimony of Peter and James of the historical Jesus. It is at this point that many biographers of the Apostle Paul venture into a detailed look at Paul’s theology, compared to that of Jesus. I don’t want to go too far into that comparison, but I do want to make a couple of summary points. Paul does in fact significant details, if only in passing, about the historical Jesus and His ministry in his writings, which are, with that of James, the earliest written of the New Testament. He notes that James was Jesus’ brother (Galatians 1:19), that James, Peter, and John were the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (“pillars,” Galatians 2:9, which confirms the gospel accounts that those three men comprised the inner circle of Jesus’ ministry). He records the fact that Jesus was crucified (Galatians 3:1). Paul describes Jesus as the promised seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16). Paul notes that Peter was married (1 Corinthians 9:5; Mark 1:30). Paul importantly records the institution of the Lord’s Supper, including quotes of Jesus that line up with the later gospel accounts (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). In addition to all the important gospel details of Christ’s work (the things of first importance that we’ve mentioned from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8), Paul notes that Jesus was a descendant of David, in fulfillment of a crucial Messianic prophecy (Romans 1:3).

Though Paul never records anything about the parables of Jesus, making some wonder if he was even familiar with them, his doctrine of justification by faith alone is thought by many to come straight from the parables of Christ, especially the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Laborers (Matthew 20:1-16). The parables of Jesus point to salvation by grace through faith, which was the primary message Paul wanted to convey during his ministry. When he says in Romans 10:4 that Christ is “the end of the law,” Paul reveals the radical change in his perspective of the historical Jesus. As a Pharisee, he would have seen Jesus and His teaching as a threat to the law, primarily because He rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees, but also because He exhibited sovereignty over the Sabbath and the various food laws, which so greatly concerned the Pharisees. Though He was virtually silent on the issue of circumcision, Jesus’ clear teachings on other matters of law gave reason for Paul and the early church leaders to conclude that it was unnecessary for converting Gentiles. The huge decision, which we’ll mention later as it comes up at the Jerusalem council of 49 AD, proves that Paul sided with Jesus in seeing the law as an internal means to an end (the glorifying worship of God), rather than an external end in itself, as the Pharisees and many Jews would have believed.

Scholars have long argued over how much Paul may have known of the historical Jesus and His teachings. Those doubting a significant link acknowledge as few as four notable parallels between their words. Others desiring to show a convincing parallel between Jesus and Paul find as many as 925 allusions. This wide range makes the uncertainty on the issue all the more clear. Here are a handful of the links if you want to consider the matter more exhaustively: 1 Corinthians 13:2 speaks of a faith moving mountains and aligns to Mark 11:23 (Matthew 17:20); Romans 12:14 speaks of blessing those who persecute you, parallel to Matthew 5:44; in Romans 13:9, Paul quotes Jesus, as well as Leviticus 19:18, saying to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31); Romans 16:19 says to be wise regarding good and innocent regarding evil (Matthew 10:16); 1 Corinthians 7:10, speaking of divorce and remarriage, alludes to Mark 10:2,11; Paul says, “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14), referring to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:10. There are some interesting things to add about this reference. Paul quotes Luke 10:7 in 1 Timothy 5:18, but it may actually be that Luke quotes Paul! The timeline leaves us uncertain, and Luke may have even been Paul amanuensis. Also of interest, Paul did not obey this “command” with the Corinthians; experts say that he saw the regulation as pending permission, and this philosophy was in agreement with the Rabbinical teaching of Hillel (and Jesus as well, in Matthew 10:8).

Let’s consider a few more parallels: though the contexts, relating to Jew and Gentile, are completely different, the exact wording, “eat whatever is set (put) before you,” is used in 1 Corinthians 10:27 and Luke 10:8; Paul and Jesus share views on paying taxes in Romans 13:7 and Mark 12:17, and this is especially critical given the political scene after Judas the Galilean led insurgence (Zealots) starting with Roman taxation of Judea in 6 AD; Paul and Jesus both speak of blessing those who curse you (1 Corinthians 4:12; Luke 6:28); Overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:17,21) is a theme both Paul and Jesus taught (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27); Love fulfills the law (Romans 13:10; Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:28-34); and finally, in eschatological agreement, Jesus and Paul both used a thief as an illustration (1 Thessalonians 5:2-5; Luke 12:39). In the end, F.F. Bruce says, “Paul may not have known the written gospels as such, but his tradition ascribed the same ethical qualities of [the historical] Jesus as are found in the gospels; and Paul commands those, either one by one or comprehensively, for the sake of following Jesus.”

Generally speaking, and not surprisingly, Paul more commonly discusses the roles and attributes of the exalted and risen Lord Jesus. Paul often speaks of Jesus as seated at the right hand of the Father, revealing His authority; Paul calls Jesus “Lord,” referring to Psalm 110. In this Old Testament passage, the key phrase is “The Lord said to my Lord…” The Greek reads “kyrios” as Lord; the Aramaic is “mar,” as in maranatha; but the Hebrew is “Yahweh” and then “Adonai.” Paul sees the name of Jesus as equivalent to the very name of the Creator God, and worships Him as such. Paul calls Jesus the Son of God and speaks of His role as intercessor and mediator. Paul even calls Jesus the Lord, who is the Spirit (Romans 8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:45; 2 Corinthians 3:8,16-18). He compares Jesus to Adam, noting them both as the image of God (Ezekiel 1:26,28; John 1:1-14; Hebrews 1:3). Where Adam failed to obey, Jesus obeyed perfectly. Paul also considers Jesus, as in Proverbs 8, as the wisdom of God personified. For Paul, the risen Lord Jesus is the one and only eternal God.

Paul has been called a “visionary” (2 Corinthians 12:2-10) and a “mystic.” His visions, not his success, confirmed his calling (Galatians 1:15; Jeremiah 26:15; Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:4-7), fueled his labor, and perhaps even founded his theology; but visions like his were not unparalleled in the literature of the day (1 Enoch 12; 71 – a text found at the remains of the Essene community of Qumran). Many believe that his famous “thorn in the flesh” was a result of the ecstatic visions, to keep him from becoming conceited about them. That Paul may have been a “mystic” is worth considering further. One Jewish author claims that mysticism is the use of “contemplative techniques to attain the vision of the chariot throne of God” from Ezekiel 1,10. Another secular author says mysticism is “the art of establishing…conscious relation with the Absolute.” Another, perhaps with a keen understanding of the ancient Essenes, says, “Mysticism, in its normal aspect [is] a type of religion, which is characterized by an immediate consciousness of personal relationship with a Divine Being.” Still another expert, with a view to regeneration and being born again, says mysticism is “applicable to every religious tendency that discovers the way to God through inner experience without the mediation of reasoning.” Another defines it as “the name of that organic process which involves the perfect consummation of the Love of God: the achievement here and now of the immortal heritage of men.” Albert Schweitzer notes Paul’s unique mysticism, due to his stress on union with Christ in order to get to God the Father.

Paul often says, “In Christ,” or “In the Lord.” For Paul, dying and rising with Christ is not mere theology or doctrine, but it is his personal experience – one that every Christian must have to be united with Christ and thereby on the path to eternal life with God. This is the same for his understanding and experience and teaching on suffering (Acts 9:16; Romans 5:3; Philippians 3:11; Colossians 1:24; 2 Corinthians 1:6; 4:12). Paul even saw his suffering as a means that would leave less total suffering for the rest of God’s people to endure. Paul’s mysticism also includes life “in the Spirit” – a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Ezekiel 11:16-20; 36:24-27; Joel 2:28). The Essenes undoubtedly saw this coming and prepared themselves by heading to Qumran with a “spirit of holiness,” picturing themselves – as a community – as a living temple, where the offering of themselves in praise and obedience to God replaced animal sacrifices (Hosea 14:2; Hebrews 13:14; Romans 12:1). Again the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is no mere doctrine for Paul, but a personal experience of God (mystic). When he writes Galatians 5:22, listing the fruit of the Spirit, he sees the perfect living out of that life in Jesus and no only desires to mimic that lifestyle, but to see it lived out in others who follow Christ as well.

Typically, the “mystic” as we’ve seen one defined tends to be self-sufficient and recluse in his religious life, and in some sense Paul could be seen that way (Philippians 4:11-13). But in another sense, Paul demanded fellowship for edification of the body (1 Thessalonians 2:19; 2 Corinthians 7:3). Mystics commonly spoke in tongues, uttering mysteries “in the Spirit,” but Paul demanded interpretation for the practice to be deemed useful. His recorded mysteries were not private experiences for his own spiritual enrichment but rather revelations of the divine purpose and its fulfillment for the edification of the body.

R.C. Tannehill concludes by defining mysticism as “The doctrine that the individual can come into immediate contact with God through subjective experiences which differ essentially from the experiences of daily life.” He continues with a glance at Paul, “By this definition, Paul may be spoken of as, among other things, a mystic, but he does not have a mystical theology.” His theology isn’t based on his truly mystical experiences, but on Jesus. Prophecy, rabbinical exegesis, and primitive Christian tradition contribute to Paul, but his lifelong activity cannot be described as that of a mystic. Paul had mystic experiences, but he didn’t live the life or talk the talk of a mystic.

Back to our timeline, the church grew in peace for a time, while Paul was home, during – and even beyond – the reign of Caesar Tiberius. We don’t know how long Paul had resided in Jerusalem, but it was likely most of his life to that point. So the return to Tarsus for Paul was not only his leaving behind much of his Jewish upbringing but also his irrevocable commitment to the Gentile (Hellenized or Romanized) world. Paul was entering his homeland, but it probably wasn’t familiar territory, though he likely learned plenty of Greco-Roman culture from his studies under Gamaliel. Just as today’s seminary education includes a basic summary of worldviews and philosophies, so Paul’s would have as well.

We don’t know with certainty how the next 4-5 years of Paul’s life – from 36-41 AD – played out, but we can say that it certainly included Gentile evangelism (Galatians 1:22-23; 1 Corinthians 11:22-27) in the context of synagogue worship (such as Cornelius the God-fearer). Jewish proselytizing was common from 20 BC-60 AD; Hillel expected it from his students, and Paul probably engaged in it even before his conversion (Isaiah 43:10-12,21; Galatians 5:11; Acts 2:10; 6:5; 8:27-39). Paul was not the only Christian missionary in Syria and Cilicia at the time; and there was good reason for that! Christian Jews often found that pagan and semi-pagan regions, such as Alexandria, Cyrene, and Phoenicia, afforded them greater freedom to serve God and be His witnesses (as was the case for Philip in Samaria, with the Ethiopian eunuch, and later in Caesarea Maritima (Acts 8:5-40), and even back in the Old Testament with Daniel in Babylon). So we leave Paul for a moment to his ministry in Syria and Cilicia, with unrecorded results, and turn to what Luke reveals as the next big thing in the Christian movement, the growth of the church in Antioch.

Syrian Antioch, as opposed to Pisidian Antioch, was founded in 300 BC by the Seleucids. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire in New Testament times, behind only Rome and Alexandria. There was a significant Jewish population there from its inception, and both Josephus and the Bible hint that the Jews there were proselytizing and winning converts when they mention “Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism” (Acts 6:5), who became one of the first deacons in the church at Jerusalem after converting to Christianity. There were a number of competing cults in the large city; but Christianity may have stood out due to the amazing message of the Creator God who humiliatingly became man to solve the problem of sin, dying out of His great love for His people, only to be exalted as Lord (Philippians 2:5-11). This simple proclamation was understandable and attractive to God-fearers in Antioch, and so the followers of Jesus were first called Christians there. Jews wouldn’t have given them the name, for it implies that Jesus was the Christ, or Messiah. On the other hand, Gentiles saw Christ as another name for Jesus, so it fit perfectly. Interestingly, in Latin, the word for “Christian” was only a vowel away from a common word used for “slave.” Many probably mistook the one for the other!

Anyway, the Jerusalem church held authority over the Antioch church at this time, and so Jerusalem leaders sent Barnabas to ensure proper doctrine and governance (Acts 11:23). As the church in Antioch grew, there quickly became more Gentile Christians, and that’s when critical decisions had to be made about defining what it means to be a Christian. One author says, “Due to the rapid spread of the Gospel among Antioch (in Syria) Greeks, the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to minister to the new believers (Acts 11:20-22). God used Barnabas, after his arrival in Antioch, to add even more converts to the church (Acts 11:23-24). Barnabas soon traveled to Tarsus, where Paul lived, to solicit his help with the newly converted Antioch brethren.” Barnabas must have known about Paul’s ministry, and perhaps his specialty in dealing with Gentiles. So Paul now re-enters Luke’s Acts storyline.

Paul and Barnabas ministered in Antioch for a year, around 42 AD (Acts 11:25-26), and there were likely many comings and goings between Antioch and Jerusalem around this time by the church leaders. We have noted Jerusalem’s leadership; Antioch’s leaders, including Paul and Barnabas, are listed in Acts 13:1. First, we have Simeon called Niger, who is thought to be Simon of Cyrene, the very man who carried the cross of Christ. He is thought to be a black man, for along with the moniker “Niger,” his hometown of Cyrene was a prominent city in the North African country of Libya, which had many Jewish synagogues. It is thought that Paul may have lodged with his family while in Antioch (Mark 15:21; Romans 16:13). Next, we are told of Lucius of Cyrene (Romans 16:21), also a North African who had come to Antioch. Third and finally, we read of Manaen, who was brought up with Herod the Tetrarch (Antipas). Josephus speculated that he may have been the grandson of an Essene named Menahem, who was honored after predicting Herod’s rise to power. Perhaps this honor included bringing the family into Herod’s palace on a regular basis, which would explain the tag line in Acts 13:1.

Acts 11:27-30 offers a nice glimpse of what happened next: “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius [which was 41-54 AD].) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” So Paul and Barnabas made their way to Jerusalem around 43 AD. When they had finished their mission in Jerusalem, they returned to Antioch with John Mark (Acts 12:25).

There is general uncertainty as to the placement of this episode with Paul’s timeline given in Galatians. Some suggest that the famine of Acts 11 coincides with Paul’s explanations in Galatians 2:1-10. Others say that Paul’s explanation in Galatians fits better with Acts 15 and the conference in Jerusalem. F.F. Bruce prefers the former, based primarily on the fact that circumcision doesn’t appear to be a big deal in Galatians 2:1-10. Therefore, says Bruce, the circumcision issue arose later. And we’ll discuss that in a little while. But the point of this visit to Jerusalem was to alleviate the needs of the Jerusalem church on account of the famine. James had the primacy as leader of Jerusalem, over Peter and John, and their key message was to remember the poor in their ministry to the Gentiles. There are several suggestions as to the identity of the poor here. It could refer to the poor Jerusalem Christians, the entire Jerusalem church in the midst of persecution and famine, the Essenes, who specifically referred to themselves as the oppressed and afflicted of the flock (Zechariah 11:7,11), or even the Jewish dispersion, referred to as Ebionites (1 Peter 1:1; James 1:1). Most experts suggest that, though Paul was eager to remember the poor as a voluntary gesture of Christian love, the Jerusalem leadership may have seen this responsibility as a tribute or debt owed from the daughter churches to the mother church.

One author sums up what happened next: “From Antioch in Syria Paul, Barnabas and John (surnamed Mark) began their first journey (Acts 13:4-52, 14:1-25). They traveled to Cyprus and Perga. John Mark left Paul and Barnabas at Perga and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). After Perga, Paul and Barnabas journey to Antioch in Pisidia, then to the cities of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. When they finished preaching the gospel in Derbe, they retraced their steps through Lystra, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch and Perga to strengthen and teach the brethren (Acts 14:21-25). From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch (Acts 14:25-26).” There’s a lot there, and it’s worth talking about in a little more detail.

Barnabas desired to visit his native Cyprus, which was Roman controlled as a province of Cilicia, and Paul likely desired to return to Asia Minor where he had been working. The Holy Spirit moved among the Antioch leaders and brought them to send Paul and Barnabas – with John Mark (Acts 12:12) – to both places. The missionaries made their way through Cyprus preaching in the synagogues of previously established Jewish communities. Because traveling agitators were stirring up many Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire at this time (Acts 13:6-12; 17:6), Rome often required the agitators to appear before the proconsul for approval or banishment. Sergius Paullus, “an intelligent man,” was the proconsul on Cyprus, and he not only approved of Paul and Barnabas, despite the efforts of Satan through Elymas to stop them, but also “believed, for he was amazed at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:12).

From Cyprus the group sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, and the only news of that part of the trip that Luke reported, in addition to preaching the gospel (Acts 14:25), was the departure of John Mark. Then they headed 100 miles north into southern Galatia, through a region called Pisidia, which lay between Pamphylia and Phrygia, to a plateau-town called Antioch, Pisidian Antioch. Sir William Ramsay speculated that Paul headed there because of the altitude, to recover from Malaria he picked up in Perga (Galatians 4:13). Others speculate that he headed there, because the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paullus had a relative in Pisidian Antioch that he wanted to hear the gospel. Whatever the reason, Paul and Barnabas, without John Mark, arrived in Pisidian Antioch, which was a Roman colony, infused with Roman citizens to help Romanize the region. Roads were built stretching out from the town to aid in this endeavor.
Paul’s speech in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41) is similar to Peter’s in Acts 2:14-40. Their audiences were both primarily Jewish, but God-fearing Gentiles were also present. Both mentioned the forgiveness of sins (in v38 respectively), but Paul adds mention of justification (v39). Paul’s message was attractive, and he was invited back the following Sabbath. Practically the whole town gathered – mostly Gentiles, no doubt – and the Jews were jealous and tried to divide the audience against Paul and Barnabas. The immediate result was that Paul and Barnabas left Pisidian Antioch due to persecution and headed for Iconium, where the same thing occurred. However, the more lasting consequence of this action was that Gentiles and Jews who had worshipped together in the synagogues would have to be separated into Christians and Jews. Thus, Galatian churches were born in Pisidian Antioch and Iconium.

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